Wellington - The New Zealand All Blacks face a strain on
their midfield resources as they attempt to regroup after last weekend's Test
loss to the British and Irish Lions and to prepare for the series-deciding
third Test in Auckland on Saturday.
Ryan Crotty, the All Blacks' new midfield organiser, has
been ruled out with a hamstring injury sustained in the first Test at Eden Park
and Sonny Bill Williams has been suspended after being sent off in the second
That leaves the All Blacks to choose from a group of
relatively inexperienced centres as they attempt to avoid their first series
loss to the Lions since 1971.
Assistant coach Ian Foster says he has confidence in any of
the players New Zealand may call on when it names its line-up for the match on
Anton Lienert-Brown seems the only certainty to start after
playing in both of the first two Tests, as a replacement for Crotty in Auckland
and as a starter in the No 13 jersey in Wellington.
The other midfield position may go to rugby league convert
Ngani Laumape, who made his Test debut in Wellington when Williams was sent
off, or Malakai Fekitoa, who has been called into the All Blacks squad as
New Zealand also has Jack Goodhue, added to the squad when
Crotty was injured, and - in what would be a long shot selection - Reiko Ioane,
who played both of the first two tests on the wing but is adept at outside centre.
The selection might also depend on the fitness of wing Waisake Naholo, who left the field for a head injury assessment in Wellington
after being struck by Lions' flank Sean O'Brien. It is not yet clear whether
Naholo had a concussion.
"We have got a number of options in midfield,"
Foster said. "It goes to show, you've really got to make sure you're
preparing a group of four or five at all stages just do be ready to play.
"Yes, there's been some reshuffling and that brings its
challenges but our expectations are that whoever goes out there plays at a top
level whether it's their first Test or 50th."
Foster said the All Blacks were prepared for all
"We like to think were really smart and have a great
plan," he said. "Last year we ended up bringing Anton in and he was a
bit of a revelation.
"All we can really do is prepare everyone to the best
of their ability, give them an opportunity and leave it up to them."
Foster said New Zealand hadn't produced its best form in
either of the first two Tests, and need to improve in the third Test.
"We've done some really good stuff in the last two
weeks but it's pretty clear that there's more in us," he said. "We've
got to focus on that and make sure that in all circumstances, whether it's wet
and cold or windy or whatever, we're still able to express ourselves when we
Scrumhalf Aaron Smith expects the All Blacks, who were a man
short for almost two-thirds of the test, to step up their attacking game after
the Lions successfully stifled it in Wellington, holding New Zealand tryless in
a test for the first time since 2014.
"That's something we're going to fix this week,"
Smith said. "We've learnt a lot from that game."
The Lions have relaxed since the second Test in the tourist
resort of Queenstown on New Zealand's South Island and will fly to Auckland on
Foster expressed some surprise at that match preparation but All
Blacks flank Jerome Kaino figured the Lions know what they're doing.
"I'm sure they'll throw some training in there
somewhere," he said. "But, hey, if that's what they think will get
the best out of their players, then good on them.
"For us, we've got a lot of improvements to make and we'll
just worry about what we need to do."